Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Excellent Example of How Not to Prepare a Budget

If there's anything to be learned from how this council works, it's that we are an ongoing example of how not to do things. We're consistently inconsistent, we ignore the rules, we pick image over substance at every opportunity, and speed over thoroughness. We claim to be open and accountable, but make decisions based on backroom discussions, and refuse to provide the most basic information about what it costs to run the city.

And what should be most concerning to the taxpayers: it appears that most members of council are quite all right with this, and see no reason to change the way we do things.

The recent budget process was, once again, an excellent example of how to bungle our way to a result that is confusing and inconsistent.

We first received the budget documents in late December. In late January, instead of passing the budget in a one-day cram session as has been our practice in the past, most of council voted to send it back to administration, asking for more details, for a list of discretionary expenditures that could be reduced and a plan for staff reductions. In the intervening six weeks, a few staff members' jobs were abolished, but we saw no plan or reasoning behind those abolishments. We have not received any more budget details, including details about the police budget, which is one-third of the city's budget. We have received nothing on what the city's discretionary expenditures are, or how they could be reduced. We did receive a rather disappointing report on implementing a flat tax a few days before the final budget meeting. That's it.

What we haven't seen is a breakdown of the budget that shows where the money is being spent, or any initiatives to reduce costs - limiting our paid advertising, or cutting down on floral decorations in Memorial Square, or cutting out custom-made Christmas cards, as a few examples that I've mentioned before. It seems that we're not willing to look at our spending patterns, and see where we could cut back. There have also been no suggestions as to other ways of covering our costs, such as increasing user fees at facilities. We'd rather just keep on doing what we've been doing, and bill the taxpayer for any shortfalls.

As a way of hopefully kick-starting some people into actually thinking of ways to save money, I had given notice of motion to freeze salaries for out-of-scope staff. Not only would this save money, since traditionally these staff get the same increase that is negotiated with unionized staff, but it would also send a message that, as a council, we are trying to reduce costs across the board. This made for some lively discussion at Monday's council meeting, as well as the usual ill-informed comments from some other council members. On Monday, I had suggested that I would be willing to amend my motion to limit an increase to cost-of-living, whereupon another councillor wondered where such information would come from, as though I was suggesting pulling a number out of the air. I'm rather surprised to find out that he doesn't know that these numbers are published regularly - Saturday's Star-Phoenix indicated that in February, the annual consumer price index had increased by 2.2% - there's a number that hasn't been pulled out of the air, and that I would be quite comfortable in setting as a cap. At any rate, after some discussion, which included suggestions from several members of council that this topic should be left to our budget meetings set for Friday and Saturday, I withdrew the motion. The result? When I raised it on Friday, other members of council claimed that they had made no commitment to discuss this, so it didn't happen.

What has been brought in, without much open discussion, is a flat or base tax. This has been brought forward at least once in every council term that I've been part of. It's based on the idea that everyone should pay at least a basic amount in taxes that isn't related to the assessed value of their home. I have consistently opposed a flat tax, because every report on it that I've seen shows the same thing - it means a greater proportional tax increase for low and middle income residents, and it isn't based on the full spectrum of benefits that come from the city. The usual simplification focuses on police and fire services, but ignores things like paved streets, green spaces, sidewalks, or access to recreational facilities.

At a council meeting in January, I believe, it was brought forward that a flat tax be part of the budget discussion. I objected at the time, partly because this was focused on residential properties, with no mention made of how such an assessment would be applied on commercial properties, and partly because it hadn't been discussed in council previously, and appeared to be made in this way so that the flat tax would be brought in the back door, as a way of achieving the agenda of some members of council. However, most other members of council voted in favour of this.

We got a report from the city manager last week, with just a few days to review before the budget meeting, which outlined a few projects that could be removed for budget savings, but with its main focus being options for a flat tax. Unfortunately, it appears that the various options have been pulled out of nowhere - there is no reason for the various numbers proposed, such as a connection to level of service provided. The main target appears to be to result in an income level of $1 million. Some councillors have suggested that this money be set aside in reserves, but it isn't clear for what, or what a target should be. We do have a mechanism for establishing reserves - the capital reserves levy. Unfortunately, that levy has been earmarked for a single purpose, the soccer centre, until 2017 (the original date was 2013, but overruns and additional embellishments took care of that).

As in previous years, the actual budget meeting took less than a day - I was home before 5 p.m. on Friday. Much of the time was spent debating the difficulty of setting a flat tax for commercial users. Apparently other members of council were able to recognize the inequity of having the same tax for a large store in a big box development and a small business downtown - that wouldn't be fair, someone said. But they have no difficulty in doing exactly that to a senior citizen who lives in an 800 square foot war-time home in Midtown, as compared to a two-income family in a 3,500 square foot house in Crescent Heights - that inequity is okay.

Although the budget was passed by the budget committee, it hasn't been passed by council yet. That will happen at the next council meeting. There is still time to voice your opinion to any member of council. Since we have a history of approving the budget as fast as possible, through special meetings, I would recommend making your opinion known quickly and directly.

It's too bad, really. I'm sure that most people, before being elected to council, intend to do their best to speak up for their constituents and the rest of Prince Albert. I guess, that for some, when the going gets tough, it's not worth the effort.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

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